No Defense for Crimson’s Performance

The Ladies' Dan

The few intrepid souls who braved the cold, rainy weather at Harvard Stadium on Saturday were at least rewarded with an impressive show of offensive firepower, courtesy of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Carl Morris and Rodney Byrnes.

Fitzpatrick threw for 353 yards (the fourth highest total in school history), Morris hauled in 11 catches (including a simple screen pass that the senior All-American took 54 yards for a score) and Byrnes contributed to his burgeoning highlight reel with an electrifying 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

All told, the Crimson amassed 52 points and nearly 400 yards of total offense. The only people on the field worthy of more pity than the Cornell defenders were the Harvard cheerleaders, who had to do a combined 232 push-ups thanks to the exorbitant score.

It’s easy to get carried away by such a lopsided result. The offense is firing on all cylinders despite a change in quarterbacks, and Harvard has now scored at least four touchdowns in 13 straight games. The win over Cornell marks the Crimson’s ninth straight over league opponents and Harvard’s 2-0 Ivy mark after this weekend puts it in sole possession of first place.

Time to start thinking about the repeat, right?

Well, as loathe as I am to quote the irrepressibly annoying Lee Corso, he probably puts it best—“not so fast, my friends.”

Before we just hand a second straight Ivy title to Harvard, consider a crucial difference from last year’s squad—the defense.

The 2001 Crimson defense—anchored by defensive end Marc Laborsky ’02, cornerback Willie Alford ’02 and then-sophomore linebacker Dante Balestracci, all of them all-Ivy selections—allowed a respectable 20.4 points per game and gave up more than 21 points only three times in nine games.

Compare that to the numbers from this year’s defensive unit. Through four games, the Crimson is giving up 26.5 points per game (a full touchdown ahead of last year’s pace) and has allowed all of its opponents to score more than 21 points.

Even in the afterglow of Saturday’s resounding victory, Harvard coach Tim Murphy admitted that he is troubled by the lack of consistency of his defensive corps.

“I’ll be very upfront, I think [the defense] is a concern,” he said. “The glass was certainly half full today with the way our offense played.”

But for Byrnes’ kickoff return, an unintended Rodney Thomas touchdown in garbage time and a fortuitous touchdown grab by Kyle Cremarosa off a deflection, Harvard would have found itself where it’s been in all of its games this season—barely ahead of an opponent who had been controlling the time of possession by driving and scoring on its defense.

And it’s that empty half of the glass that should trouble followers of Harvard football. Up to this point in the season, the Crimson has relied on its quick-strike capabilities on offense to get into the lead and give the defense something to protect.

But what if the offense should fail to be its usual, efficient force? Look no further than Harvard’s streak-breaking 36-35 loss to Lehigh last weekend.

The offense had staked Harvard to a 35-21 lead going into the fourth quarter, only to watch that margin evaporate as the Mountain Hawks drove steadily on the Crimson and scored three times. Unable to produce any more magic, the offense sputtered and could not respond.

It was the first time in a long, long time that the Harvard defense had failed to hang on to a fourth-quarter lead, especially one of that size. It wasn’t the Ivy title defense of a year ago by any stretch of the imagination.

So what exactly is the problem with this year’s defensive unit? Well, far be it from me to individually rake players over the coals, so let me speak in broad brush strokes—Harvard can’t stop the pass and it can’t stop the run. And as funny as that sounds, it’s what the numbers tell us.

The Harvard secondary, the Achilles’ heel of many a Crimson team, has played erratically this season. Saturday was no exception as the Crimson defensive backs combined for two dropped interceptions and four pass interference penalties and gave up a slew of third-and-long conversions that kept Big Red drives moving. They also gave up three touchdown passes, two of which were jump balls thrown to the smallest receiver on the field (Cornell senior Keith Ferguson, who checks in at 5’9).

But, to be honest, the secondary isn’t playing that much worse than the one on last year’s championship squad. Through four games, Harvard is giving up 249 yards through the air, which is only slightly higher than the 245 aerial yards given up a year ago.

The big problem with this Crimson defense isn’t the much-maligned secondary. Nope, the biggest weakness on this year’s team is sadly what was the biggest strength of defenses past—stopping the run.

Two years ago, the Crimson defense ranked nationally in run defense, holding opponents to less than 90 yards a game. Last year, the veteran defensive line held the other team to an average of 129 yards per game.

And what are the run defense numbers for this year’s squad? An embarrassing 184 yards per game, about twice as much as prior Harvard teams had allowed and a full 50 percent more yards than last year’s title team.

The Crimson’s inability to stop the run has allowed other teams to control the clock, mount sustained drives and keep Harvard’s explosive offensive weapons on the sideline.

Last Saturday, Cornell took a page from Brown’s playbook and ran the ball at the Crimson in the first quarter, eating up more than 12 of the period’s 15 minutes. All four of the Big Red scoring drives on the day took more than 10 plays, went for more than 60 yards and consumed an average of six minutes each.

Luckily for the Crimson, the offense was able to work with what little time was left and make the most of it. But a ten-minute deficit in time of possession in a game won by 29 points is a little curious. And that didn’t get past Murphy.

“The limited amount of time we had the ball in the first half offensively leaves very little margin for error,” Murphy said.

Harvard cannot continue to operate within that margin of error and expect to win games against Ivy teams much better than Cornell. The de facto captain of the defense, Balestracci, knows as much.

“The biggest thing [for our defense] is making plays to get our offense back on the field,” Balestracci said after the game.

But that has really yet to happen on a consistent basis this season. It’s clear that the defense needs to step up, stop the run and make the big plays it was accustomed to making in years past.

And if the defense doesn’t start to make plays to get the offense back on the field more regularly—if the defense plays the way it did on Saturday against the likes of Princeton and Penn (on the road, no less)—then I’ll be perfectly blunt: the forecast for another Ivy title will be about as cloudy as your typical October day in Cambridge.

—Staff writer Daniel E. Fernandez can be reached at dfernand@fas.harvard.edu.